Among the compelling cast of characters in Peter Jackson’s sprawling Get Back documentary is an American photographer named Ethan Russell. Though his role in the film is small, his dazzling and unlikely odyssey is the subject of a new presentation, Best Seat in the House.
Growing up in San Francisco during the early years of rock ’n’ roll, Russell was drawn to the sounds and style of Elvis Presley. But within a few years, a fundamental shift had taken place. “By the time I was in college, everything that was important musically was coming from England,” he says.
By then, Russell was restless.
“I asked my dad to borrow some money to buy a movie camera,” he recalls. His father was skeptical, but Ethan replied that learning to make movies was more practical than flying around the world. His father called his bluff, saying: “Well, why don’t you do that?” In 1968, Ethan got on a plane and flew to London.
“I suspected that England would be like Haight-Ashbury, only further out,” Russell recalls. “Everything would be about the Beatles and the Stones.”
But he discovered that London wasn’t like that at all. The Beatles had ceased touring, and they were rarely seen in public. Russell took a job in a hospital working with autistic children.
“I didn’t know quite what I was doing,” he says, “but I was happy enough.”
A friend from America came to visit Russell, bringing along a copy of a new book, Family of Man. “It was a Museum of Modern Art exhibition and then a book,” Russell explains. “It’s a very moving book of photography.” Seeing Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking film Blow-Up had already inspired him to start thinking more about working behind the lens. He recalls thinking, “That’s cool! Maybe I could do that!”
One day, after his transition to photography, a journalist friend asked if he’d like to come along on an interview and shoot photos. Russell agreed. The subject, it turned out, was Mick Jagger.
The session went well and Russell thought that was the end of it. “That was the peak, you know?” he says with a laugh. But six weeks later, the journalist friend invited Russell along for another interview, this time with John Lennon.
From there, things took off. His subjects liked Russell’s method: he didn’t get in the way. He captured images that reflected his subject’s essence. In quick succession, Russell went on to take photos during the making of The Beatles’ Let it Be, the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour (including the Altamont concert), the Beatles’ final photo shoot, the cover of Who’s Next and other iconic subjects.
By the late 1970s, Russell had moved into the then-new field of music video production. In the mid 1980s, the multiple Grammy award nominee published his first book of photography, Dear Mr. Fantasy: Diary of a Decade—Our Time and Rock and Roll. He would eventually follow that with another book, Let it Bleed: The Rolling Stones 1969 Tour.
Now, Russell has put together what he humbly describes as a “slideshow.” But The Best Seat in the House is vastly more than that.
“There’s a story carrying along with all these pictures,” he says. “The trip to England, meeting Jagger, meeting Lennon, shooting the Rock and Roll Circus, doing Stones tours in ’69 and ’72, working with The Who…”
The presentation follows Russell’s adventures right through to his video years, when he made the music video for John Lennon’s “Woman.”
“That’s the arc of time covered in the show: 1968 to ’80,” he says.
Today, Russell remains slightly in awe of his set of experiences.
“I never understood why I was there, or why anybody would pay any attention to me,” he admits, an attitude that helped as he photographed some of rock’s biggest names. “I didn’t want them paying attention to me. If people were saying, ‘Hi, Ethan,’ then they were looking at the camera. I wanted to be outside of all that.”
And so he was. But with The Best Seat in the House, and his return to those days, he brings the audience right inside it all.
Ethan Russell’s The Best Seat in the House
Sat, 7:30pm, $48+
Carriage House Theatre, Saratoga